Lara Croft, Tomb Raider
The new Tomb Raider reboot hopes to amplify Lara Croft’s penchant for action-packed archeology, while making her a bit more realistic as a character. The new game not only gives her an origin story that tracks her development into a kick-ass hero, but also, you know, pants.
The original Metroid was very overtly influenced by 1979’s claustrophobic space-thriller Alien — even the arch-enemy miniboss Ridley was named after director Ridley Scott. But maybe the most fundamental strain of xenomorphic DNA they borrowed was featuring an extraterrestrial-blasting heroine á la Ellen Ripley in the form of Samus Aran. Even better: You didn’t know your exoskeletally enhanced character was a woman until the very end, messing with the default gender perceptions of a whole generation of gamers.
Zelda/Sheik, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The pre-N64 versions of Princess Zelda were usually defined by a few straightforward character traits: Their name was Zelda; they were princesses; and they got kidnapped, over and over again. The Zelda in Ocarina is very different. Thanks to the game’s time-hopping plot line, we see her age from a wise-beyond-her-years youth into a major player in the battle for Hyrule. She even adopts a secret identity: Sheik, the mysterious ninja who guides Link through the semi-apocalyptic future Hyrule.
Faith, Mirror?s Edge
Mirror’s Edge is a hyperkinetic, dystopian FPS (first-person-sprinter) that’s a blast even if it occasionally makes you feel like you’re playing Parkour: The Game. Faith, the protagonist, can crawl up pipes, hang over ledges, jump absurd distances between buildings — all without breaking a sweat. Although you might.
Jade, Beyond Good & Evil
Not many games have the same name as a Nietzsche book (unless you count Nintendo’s unreleased Thus Spoke Zeldathustra). The action-adventure game Beyond Good & Evil managed to feature not only a badass female main character, but one that was also a journalist. And of course, just like Bob Woodward before her, she’s an expert in martial arts.
Ms. Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man
To quoth the Simpsons: In the early ’80s, ”Ms. Pac-Man struck a blow for women’s rights and a young Joe Piscopo taught us how to laugh.” As tongue-in-cheek as that may be, the pink bow tie-sporting pie-chart creature was a part of a stronger, sleeker game than her male predecessor. In fact, she replaced him as the prime breadwinner and quartermaster in a number of arcades, proving once and for all who wore the pants in that relationship. (Neither of them, because in the game they have no legs.)
Sure, Chell seems to be a pretty cool girl with some sweet physics skills, but she’s kind of a blank slate. Much more interesting is her enemy, the robo-sociopathic GLaDOS. Deadpan and deadly, Portal‘s binary-code B. F. Skinner is as big a part of the game’s appeal as anything else.
Chloe Frazer, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Nathan Drake might have ultimately chosen good-girl Elena Fisher. But personally, if we were ever dodging gunmen while jumping over rooftops or through hidden caves, we’d prefer to have Aussie criminal adventurer Chloe covering our back. As played by Claudia Black, Chloe is tough, funny, and prone to backstabbing. But hey, if she backstabs everybody, it’s pretty much the same as backstabbing nobody. Right?
Jack, Mass Effect 2
The Mass Effect franchise was filled with great female characters — not to mention the fact that the game gave you the option to play your Commander Shepard as a lady. But Jack stands out from the crowd. A half-crazy super-criminal with a tragic backstory, Jack’s heavily-tattooed body is a mask for a lifetime of emotional scars; it’s as if she spent time in every dark corner of the Mass Effect universe, and what didn’t kill her only made her stronger.
Alyx Vance, Half-Life 2
The main character in Half-Life 2 is actually Gordon Freeman, but considering he’s as silent as a mahogany credenza (and with about as much personality), resistance-fighter Alyx Vance helps bring some much needed energy to the proceedings. She’s also a skilled fighter and hacker, without whom Freeman would still be back in City 17 picking up cans.
Madison Paige, Heavy Rain
Videogame characters tend toward the extreme: Mystical creatures with magical superpowers, loner law enforcers with a bottomless arsenal, noble heroes who save princesses as a job. Part of what makes the noirish Heavy Rain so compelling is how the characters feel so down-to-earth. Hence, the young journalist Madison Paige. She can’t sleep very well. She drives a motorcycle. She’s trying to find a killer. In a lot of ways, she’s the anti-Lara Croft — which is what makes her so interesting.
Terra, Final Fantasy VI
While Terra is the first character you control in Final Fantasy VI, she’s not in control of herself. Going through a Django-like transformation from brainwashed slave to active hero, she’s far more interesting than the simple Madonna-whore dichotomy of Final Fantasy VII‘s Aeris and Tifa.
Joanna Dark, Perfect Dark
Goldeneye, Shmoldeneye. The cool kids know that the real peak of the good-old-days of Nintendo shooters was the spiritual sequel to the 007 classic, which starred Joanna Dark as a wrist crossbow-wielding, alien-battling, gun-sideways-turning superspy. Influenced by a number of famous heroines — Dana Scully’s red hair, a name that roughly approximates the French pronunciation of ”Joan of Arc” — Joanna was a standout heroine in a genre that trends, even now, toward hyper-masculinity.
Chun-Li, Street Fighter II
Proof that ladies could quite literally kick ass as well as the dudes, Chun-Li was the first female fighting-game character in Street Fighter II, since then, the legend of Chun-Li has become so powerful, it even managed to survive The Legend of Chun Li. Question: Is there a better move in fighting-game history than the Lightning Kick? Answer: No. The Lightning Kick is so powerful, it makes the Hadouken look like the Gadouken.
The Boss, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
In the gloriously crazypants pantheon of Metal Gear baddies, no one can compete with The Boss, a practically godlike American soldier (She gave birth in the middle of a World War II battle, via Caesarean.) The Boss’s relationship to Snake Eater’s Naked Snake makes for one of the best protagonist-antagonist relationships in videogame history: She variously seems like his mentor, his nemesis, his surrogate mother, and his lover, giving their final showdown a positively mythic edge.